Ulster in the first world war
The state of 'Northern Ireland' was born in the aftermath of the first world war. Although conscription had not been introduced and attempts to do so had sparked fierce opposition, by the end of the war some 170,000 Irishmen had enlisted. Upon the outbreak of the war, the leaders of both the Ulster Volunteer Force, Edward Carson, and the Irish Volunteers, John Redmond, pledged their forces to the war effort. In the north, nationalist leaders, like Belfast's Joe Devlin, also encouraged recruitment.
While UVF members were kept together in the 36th (Ulster) Division, nationalists were dispersed throughout the army. By the beginning of 1916, 32,000 men had enlisted from Belfast, Down and Antrim alone. A few months later, the 36th (Ulster) Division lost more than 5000 men on the first two days of the battle of the Somme. By the time it was disbanded in 1919, casualties numbered 32,000.
At home, after a slow start, Ulster industries geared up for war production. Harland and Wolff and Workman Clark shipyards vastly increased their output of merchant shipping. Linen mills and factories expanded to produce uniforms, aeroplane fabric and stretchers. Shirt manufacturing in Derry and the Belfast Ropeworks also prospered.
Northern Ireland between the wars
Between 1919 and 1922, bloody outbreaks of armed conflict between the IRA, a reorganised UVF and a newly formed Special Constabulary, coupled with sectarian murders and street disturbances, formed the context for the founding of the new state of Northern Ireland. Only civil war in the south of Ireland eased the violence in the north.
The establishment of the Northern Ireland parliament in these circumstances ensured the formation of a conservative unionist government. It rallied to defend the Protestant character of the state at the expense of the resolution of social and economic problems. Nationalists boycotted parliament, whilst the unionists continued to distrust the loyalty of their opponents.
Already in 1922, unemployment in Northern Ireland stood at 23%. The country was dependent on exports of linen, ships and agricultural products, all of which suffered the effects of protectionist measures overseas. Lord Pirrie had disguised the state of Harland and Wolff’s finances, but on his death in 1924 his successor found the company on the edge of bankruptcy. Demand for new shipping fell annually until 1938, by which time Harland and Wolff employed only 1554 workers and the ‘Wee Yard’ of Workman Clark had shut down.
Those who were long term unemployed had to apply to the Poor Law Guardians for Outdoor Relief (ODR). If accepted the unemployed on ODR were forced to work in labour gangs for meagre cash payments or humiliating payments in kind. The Poor Law Guardians saw the unemployed as victims of their own ‘sloth, fecklessness and iniquity.’
Such attitudes helped provoke large scale demonstrations by the unemployed in 1924, 1926 and famously in 1932. In 1938 almost 30% of industrial workers were unemployed. Northern Ireland had the highest unemployment rate and the highest infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland in the second world war
With manufacturing industries struggling out of the long depression of the 1920s and 1930s and a reactionary and ‘dilatory’ unionist government in unchallenged power at Stormont, Northern Ireland seemed unprepared for the industrial and military challenges of the second world war. Prime Minister Craigavon, James Craig, was ageing, recruitment for the armed forces was low and civil defence preparations were inadequate. Belfast had no fighter planes, no barrage balloons, only 20 anti-aircraft guns and four public air-raid shelters.
Then, on the night of April 7, 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Harland and Wolff, the Belfast docks and other industrial targets in the city. A week later, bombers struck in north Belfast and official underestimates listed 745 dead and more than 400 seriously injured. Others died the same night in raids on Derry, Newtownards and Bangor. Another raid early in May saw 4000 incendiary bombs dropped on the harbour area and after a follow-up raid, firestorms raged in the residential areas of east Belfast and the city centre.
With the entry of the United States into the war, Derry’s strategic role as a vital port for north Atlantic convoys saw 20,000 US sailors stationed in the city. The rest of Northern Ireland hosted preparations for US campaigns in the European theatre.
Dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war on the home front may have lain behind the election of five socialist candidates in Belfast in June 1945. But these gains were lost in the United Kingdom general election the following month and a conservative unionist government at Stormont did what it could to dilute the welfare state reforms of Clement Atlee’s Labour government at Westminster.
Peacetime and after
The second world war had exposed the ill health and poverty of working class families. Northern Ireland’s government, however reluctantly, shadowed the welfare reforms of Great Britain’s Labour government. The staple industries, especially shipbuilding, also prospered in the immediate post war years.
Despite a brief ‘border campaign’ waged by the IRA between 1956 and 1960, relations between the religious communities in Northern Ireland also seemed to have relaxed. Labour candidates did well in the 1962 elections and in 1963 Captain Terence O’Neill succeeded Brookeborough as unionist leader and prime minister.
O’Neill set out to reform both Northern Ireland’s economic performance and community relations. However, his efforts were unsuccessful. In 1969, unemployment in Northern Ireland stood at more than twice the United Kingdom average, with some areas west of the river Bann witnessing unemployment levels six times those of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Such difference highlights one limitation of O’Neill’s reforms. Another was the loyalist response to even minor conciliation of the Catholic and nationalist minority. Within four years of the first official meeting of the prime ministers of the two island states in 1965, Northern Ireland was spiralling into its most violent civil crisis since its foundation.
Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; Stolen Thunder: The Northern Ireland Labour Party in context, 1958 – 65 (1994) by Marc Mulholland; Dancing to History's Tune: History, Myth and Politics in Ireland (1996) by Brian Mercer Walker.